Australian floods affect over 200,000

BRISBANE, Australia — More than 200,000 people have been affected by relentless flooding in northeast Australia, with the flood zone now stretching over an area bigger than France and Germany, officials said Friday.

Thousands of homes and businesses across Queensland state have been inundated with water after days of pounding rain caused swollen rivers to overflow. The entire population of two towns was forced to evacuate as water swamped their communities, cutting off roads and devastating crops.

Heavy rains and flooding in northeast Australia is common during the southern hemisphere summer, but the scope of the damage from the recent downpours is extremely unusual, Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said.

"This is without a doubt a tragedy on an unprecedented scale," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "We now have 22 towns or cities that are either substantially flooded or isolated because the roads have been cut off to them. That represents some 200,000 people spanning an area that's bigger than the size of France and Germany combined."

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes this week. In the central Queensland town of Emerald, around 1,000 people were evacuated in the past 24 hours.

The town was facing the prospect of food shortages, power outages and sewage-contaminated floodwaters, county mayor Peter Maguire said. Three evacuation centers have been set up to help displaced residents.

Weather across most of the state was drier today, but river levels were still rising in some areas as high waters worked their way toward the ocean. Bligh warned that drenched communities could be stuck under water for more than a week, and clean-up efforts were expected to cost billions of dollars.

Queensland launched a disaster relief fund for flood victims with $1 million in state money. Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged to match that amount with federal funds.

Gillard was touring flooded communities today.